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Following up from Monday’s post (a Lord thought it was ‘excellent‘, you know…) and with Nick Clegg launching a new report on devolution today, a few more thoughts that I wanted to set down in advance of writing about this properly.

1) We need a new language of devolution

I’ve had a quick look through the summary of the IPPR report that’s being launched today and it’s generally good. There are some points of implementation where I’d differ from them, but I think the principle is good.

The problem is that if you try explaining it to people, or asking them to read even the summary report, most people’s eyes are going to glaze over very quickly when they hit management-speak phrases like ‘core outcome entitlements’. The reason Yes is doing so well in Scotland is that ‘independence’ is a simple complex, easily understood. ‘Asymmetric devolution to combined authorities’ isn’t, and if we’re going to go out and argue for it, we need to understand how to make that case better. Writing that appeals to fellow policy wonks is not the way to do that.

2) We need to stop the obsession with elected mayors

If there’s anything that shows how much think tanks are generally based within the M25, it’s the idea that everywhere needs an elected Mayor. After all, London has one, so why shouldn’t everywhere else? The problem is, it’s been tried and tried again and people are generally resistant to the idea of having them. That doesn’t stop them sneaking into every report about giving power to the regions or promoting our cities as if they’re the only answer to the question.

There are important questions about how local government (and any future devolved governments) are run, but the options should be more than just status quo or mayors. We also need to break away from the idea that one size fits all, and the same model needs to apply in the same way to every authority.

3) We need simple boundaries and obvious accountability

At the moment, Colchester sits within many different areas for many different things: the East of England, the Haven Gateway, Essex County Council, Essex Police, South East Local Enterprise Partnership and many others. None of those groupings operate on the same boundaries, with lots of them crossing and intersecting with themselves and others. I know we’re not unique in this and the same pattern is repeated across the country. Different regions are set up for different parts of the government, and each one ends up needing a separate bureaucracy and structures for accountability because nothing currently exists in that area that could take it on.

If we’re going to have sensible and popular devolution, then we need to keep things simple. Boundaries need to be set, and then organisations need to be set up to work within those boundaries, allowing them to share the costs of bureaucracy and accountability. Devolved and federal systems work because there’s clearly understood accountability and responsibility, not confusion about which area you might be in for what responsibility at any given time.

Like I said, these are just some general thoughts I wanted to set down before I forget them, but all comments, thoughts and questions are welcome.

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This is more of a placeholder host as what happens next is very much dependent on how Scotland votes in the independence referendum on the 18th. However, I just wanted to set out some of the things I’ve been thinking in an attempt to clarify them and maybe start some discussion.

What’s clear is that whatever the result of the vote next week, there will be a change in the constitutional balance between Westminster and Edinburgh – either Scotland will be independent, or more powers will be transferred there, which all the parties campaigning for a No vote have promised. However, there’s only been a small discussion about how that will affect the rest (or the remainder, depending on the result) of the UK. What discussion there has been has normally taken the form of a few mutterings, then someone saying ‘it’s all about the West Lothian Question, isn’t it?’ and everyone nodding sagely before moving onto other things.

Whatever the status of the UK is after the 18th, England will remain the one part of the country without any significantly devolved powers and with no obvious solution in prospect. Regional assemblies were rejected, and I’m not sure that a English Parliament or any other all-England solution is going to achieve much, as it assumes that everywhere from Carlisle to Dover and Penzance to Berwick needs the same solution.

However, I think there is a demand for more powers from some areas – Cornwall, Yorkshire and the big cities have all called for them recently – and perhaps what England needs isn’t a preoccupation with finding a one-size-fits-all solution but a solution that’s based on a real localism, with areas getting the powers they want, not the powers that Whitehall decrees they should have. It also needs a willingness to look beyond existing boundaries to see where new powers would be effectively applied not where it was thought to be in the 1880s or 1974 when most of the current local government boundaries were set.

In short, what we’re probably going to need is some form of constitutional convention, but one that’s not concerned solely with how the country as a whole is run but how we can keep as much power as possible at the lower levels of the system throughout the country. I have no idea what form that would take – with or without Scotland involved in it, but that’s why I’m sending this half-formed thought out there, in the hope it might get some discussion going. So what do you think?

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A couple of tweets I’ve seen recently on my Twitter timeline:


That’s just the most recent two, but ‘the rest of the UK should have a say about Scottish independence’ is something I’ve seen in many forms over the past few years, and will probably get said a lot more times over the next eleven days.

So, let’s pose a couple of thought experiments. In 1991, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia held referendums on whether they should declare independence and leave the USSR. All delivered clear majorities for independence, yet I suspect if the rest of the USSR had been able to vote (especially the Russian Federation) they would have said ‘let’s stay together’. Who was in the right there?

Alternatively, let’s imagine that there is a referendum in 2017 on British membership of the EU. Should that be just Britain’s decision or should the rest of the EU get to decide on if they want their Union to be broken up?

There’s plenty of discussion to be had about the role of the British government in the referendum, especially the way ‘Devo Max’ was kept off the ballot, but to start insisting that others have the power to veto someone else’s vote if they don’t like the way it’s going is to stroll down a dangerous path, and perhaps to help others prove their arguments.

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By not simply crossing the floor at Westminster to join UKIP, but resigning and calling a by-election to do it, has he now set a precedent for any other Tory MPs who want to do the same? The last MP to do that for a defection was Bruce Douglas-Mann switching from Labour to the SDP in 1982 (and he lost), and MPs who’ve done it since then haven’t followed his example.

However, if there are any other Tories thinking of doing the same (and there probably are), they’ll be watching what happens in Clacton very intently as they know that if they want to switch, they’ll face lots of questions about why they’re not calling a by-election too. Indeed, a cynic might suggest that Carswell has found a way to establish himself as UKIP’s only MP (with the resulting media profile) should he win and if no one else wants to take the same risk.

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It seems that someone supports Boris’s proposal to make people guilty until proven innocent:

Britain’s most senior police chief has called for wide-ranging new powers to tackle homegrown terrorism, including a “rebuttable presumption” that anyone who visits Syria without prior notice should be treated as a terror suspect.

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, chief constable of the Metropolitan police, also called for a return of control orders and said Britons who wage jihad in Syria or Iraq should be stripped of their passports.

When did we become a country where it’s acceptable for senior police officers, speaking in an official capacity, to call for fundamental changes in the law? And what made Bernard Hogan-Howe think it would be a good idea to do this on the same day he had to apologise for the Met breaking it’s own rules in using CS gas against lawful protesters?

But at least we have Police and Crime Commissioners to hold a senior officer like Hogan-Howe accountable. Except London doesn’t have a PCC, instead the Met are held accountable by the Mayor. Yes, the same Mayor Hogan-Howe has just been publicly supporting the proposals of…

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police_electionsWe often use the phrase ‘elective dictatorship‘ to describe the British system of government, reflecting that the nature of our system means that a Government with a majority in Parliament can do pretty much as it wants until the next election. Unlike most actual dictatorships, there are constraints to that power and a Prime Minister or Government can be removed from power if enough of their party decide they want to get rid of them.

Despite ‘elective dictatorship’ not normally being regarded as a positive description, recent years have seen it being rolled out across other forms of government. Believing that ‘strong leaders’ could wield miraculous powers, the Blair government brought in elected mayors for local authorities, concentrating most executive powers for an area in an individual, and even if a council didn’t want a mayor, most of them were forced to shift to the cabinet model – and later to the ‘strong leader’ model, where council leaders would be given effectively the same powers as a mayor, whether they wanted them or not.

This was presented as making local government more ‘democratic’ and ‘accountable’, because one of the persistent myths of British politics – and part of the ‘elective dictatorship’ – is that democracy and accountability are things that only need to happen at the ballot box every few years. Democracy is seen as an act rather than a process with accountability normally being framed as requirements to consult and consider rather than any real controls on the exercise of power. In most cases, any checks on executive power are to potentially block it after it’s announced rather than amend it beforehand.

Which brings us to Police and Crime Commissioners, another classic British case of someone coming up with a solution and then looking for – or creating – a problem that they can fix. In this case, it was the supposed non-accountability of Police Authorities, where accountability had been defined as ‘being known by the public’. Members of police authorities could be removed from their position if they weren’t doing it well, because many of them were appointed directly by councils within that police force’s area. By contrast, although PCCs were elected, no one was given the power to remove them from their office, short of them committing a crime. Police and Crime Panels are required to be consulted and can occasionally block an action by a PCC, but if the PCC’s incompetence isn’t criminal, they can do nothing to remove them from power. The person whose job is supposedly to make the police accountable is so unaccountable themselves, they can’t be removed from their office (unlike just about every other executive office in British politics). That’s why we’ve got the situation we currently have in South Yorkshire, where no one can remove Shaun Wright from office, despite even his own party thinking he should go.

(I know that’s just one part of a bigger issue, and what’s happened in Rotherham is bloody appalling but I really have very little to add to that discussion beyond ‘this is terrible’ as I don’t know how to improve child protection)

The police need to be more accountable to the public they serve (especially when senior police officers think they should be demanding fundamental changes in the law) but PCCs were an ill-thought out way to try and achieve that end. Proper democracy and accountability is an ongoing process of interacting institutions, not an occasional event that grants power to someone and the ability to use it without repercussions. If we want proper accountability it takes work to enable people to hold all power accountable, not and that’s something that can’t be delivered by a gimmick.

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vote for nobody 2Former MP Tony Wright has written an odd piece for the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, that tries to disagree with arguments that politics in Britain is broken by seemingly accepting most of the arguments that it is, then claiming that the fact some reforms have happened over the past few years means that things will work out all right. To me, it feels like he’s arguing that it’s not broken because it’s been stuck roughly back together with a flour-and-water paste that he insists is actually superglue.

It’s prompted me to finally sit down and write down a few thoughts I’ve been having on what I think is a slow breakdown of the British political system. I think one mistake Wright makes – and he’s not alone in it, as I’ve written about before – is to confuse politics and the political system, assuming they’re one and the same. It’s a common and understandable solipsism amongst politicians to believe that what we do is the only thing that properly counts as politics, but I think that’s one of the sources of the problem. By believing that politics can only include that which is contained within the existing political system, we assume that the system is capable of containing everything that’s ‘political’. (That may be a tautology, but these are still very rough thoughts)

However, what if the system isn’t capable of doing what’s expected of it? What if the system that was broadly capable of representing political opinion in the past has become completely outdated? Sure, there have been patches and tweaks, such as the ones Wright points to, over the years but these have not addressed the fundamental problems within it. It’s like insisting everything’s fine with your car because you’ve replaced the carburettor, while ignoring that it can’t go faster than 10mph and needs ten litres of fuel to get to end of the road.

I think of this as a slow breakdown because I think it’s the culmination of a long process that began in the 70s (and possibly before) but the system has managed to conceal that – and will likely try to pretend that things can still be fixed with tweaks. The system worked on the principle of there being two main mass-membership parties that sat on either side of the class divide (in line with Pulzer’s 60s observation: “Class is the basis of British politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”) The problem stems from the fact that the pillars that system rested on have crumbled away. To look at some of those factors in brief (it might take a full series of posts to cover it in any reasonable amount of detail, though):

Class is no longer the main driver of British politics. That’s not to say that class isn’t important in Britain but that other forces and other cleavages in society are much more than ‘embellishment and detail’. Old cleavages, such as the core-periphery divide, have re-arisen, class itself has evolved into a more complex issue, and new issues have arisen that may divide society but aren’t reflected in the parties.

Political parties have not changed. The usual claim here is that parties have changed, but I think the issue is that they’ve only tweaked and patched, not made a fundamental change. One of the drivers behind mass-membership parties was that they provided social opportunities in a time when there were a lot fewer ways to spend your free time. As those vast networks (that were apolitical a large amount of the time) have withered away, the nature of political parties has not changed in response with some imagining the days of mass membership and participation can be restored. Parties are still being run as though they are still mass parties, when they’ve become more like cadre parties (or to borrow Peter Mair’s term, ‘cartel parties’).

The electoral system doesn’t allow voters to be represented. One of the reasons I think of this as a slow breakdown is that you can see it emerging in the election results of the 70s, when the big parties started watching their share of the vote slip further and further away from 50%, yet not seeing this slippage represented in the share of seats and power won. Moving a bit closer to the present, one reason that the 1997 election is pivotal is that it’s the last time a single party won more votes than there were non-voters. Voters have consistently moved away from the two-party model, but the electoral system continues to prop it up.

There are other issues too – media that prefers personalities to policies, local government that’s trying to deliver for 21st century communities based on 19th century boundaries, the belief that anything that’s worth doing should only be done centrally – but my time today is limited.

What I do want to say in conclusion is that I see and hear people talking about political issues all the time, but because we restrict our definition of politics to ‘that which is represented within the political system’ we tend to not recognise it as such. However, this then turns into disengagement from the system when people don;t see the issues that are important to them being represented or discussed there. I think this tendency has been accelerated by the internet and social networking, but this is just the culmination of a process that started long before home broadband and smartphones. Just tweaking the existing system and claiming it’s completely fixed isn’t enough. We need a system that reaches out to everyone, not one that imagines those it can’t reach have nothing worthwhile to say. To paraphrase Adrian Mitchell, most people ignore most politics, because most politics ignores most people.

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